Clashing with the Past

Old Movies and Patriarchy
from the days of HUAC

A look at Fritz Lang's 1952 film "Clash by Night"
This film was made during the era of the blacklist. Did the director and scriptwriter intend it as satire disguised as a morality play?

by Daniel Borgström
February 12, 2018

Watching old movies is a journey back through time, revisiting the social attitudes of our past. A lot has changed during the last six or seven decades, much of it for the better. Thank goodness I don't have to wear a white shirt and necktie just to go downtown nowadays, but back in the 1950s that was the norm, the required male attire. I remember my father somewhat awkwardly putting on his dress-up clothes, struggling with his necktie. Being a former fisherman, Dad was skilled at tying all sorts of complicated knots, but that necktie was one he never quite mastered.

The differences between then and now are many, among the most significant being the gender roles. Male dominance was the accepted norm; this comes out in most movies of the era, in some more intensely than others. One that really lays it out thick and heavy is Fritz Lang's 1952 film "Clash by Night," produced nearly two decades before the feminist revolution of the late 1960s.

"Clash by Night" was filmed on location in Monterey and opens with picturesque shots of the seacoast, the fishing fleet, and Cannery Row, back then the center of a thriving fishing industry. The characters in this movie are fishing folk, the story centering on a love triangle in which Barbara Stanwyck plays a woman having an affair with her husband's best friend. The lover, played by Robert Ryan, is an angry, cynical fellow, the kind of guy who'd seduce his best friend's wife. The husband, Paul Douglas, is just the opposite; he's a trustworthy, amiable guy, good-hearted but rather childlike and simple-minded. Ryan says to Stanwyck, "Your man is the salt of the earth, but he's not the right seasoning for you."

While Stanwyck, Douglas and Ryan are an ill-starred threesome who get things wrong, the movie also presents us with a counter-example of a couple who get things right, at least according to the ethos of the time. This couple, played by Marilyn Monroe and Keith Andes, have their conflicts, but they work things out: she accepts him as the boss, the dominant partner. Andes portrays the proper masculine ideal of that era -- a guy who knows how to handle his woman and keep her in line.

Andes is Stanwyck's younger brother; together they own a house, presumably inherited from their parents. He's a crewman on a fishing vessel -- a purse seiner. Douglas is the owner and skipper. We see the two men (Douglas and Andes) on deck, repairing nets, using the traditional wooden net-needles.

Monroe, Andes' girlfriend, works in one of the sardine canneries along the waterfront. We first see her and Andes together in a scene where he meets her after work and they stroll down Cannery Row, chatting as they go. Monroe is telling Andes about a co-worker who showed up that morning with a black eye. "That fellow she married," Monroe says, "came down last night. Wanted her to go back upstate and live with him again. So when she wouldn't, he just beat her up awful."

"Well, he's her husband," Andes says in a matter-of-fact tone. Here, in four short words, the movie gives us Andes' philosophy of male entitlement.

A few scenes later they're at the beach, where Andes playfully puts a towel around Monroe's neck, as though to strangle her. He's just kidding, of course, just having fun, his idea of harmless fun. She seems to be okay with this; he now seems to have her in his grip, and it looks like she's going to be the underdog in this relationship. (There's a movie poster using that scene; it's on the jacket of the DVD and also online.)

Weeks and months pass. The couple become engaged, and Monroe proudly shows Stanwyck the ring she has just received from Andes. "We had a fight," Monroe says, "and were never going to see each other again. At 10 o'clock [he] came to the house and was going to kick the door down. I never thought I'd like a guy who'd push me around." Stanwyck admires the ring and tells Monroe that she's made the right decision. "[He] will make you happy. He knows who he is and what he is. Some of us don't. Always take the man who'll kick the door down. Advice from Mama."

Andes can be very sweet, Monroe says, but the movie doesn't show us much of his sweetness. In scene after scene, he comes across as rigid, righteous, and abusive, a guy who could hardly be a joy to live happily ever after with, though he certainly does possess the manly qualities that were respected and perhaps even idealized in the '50s. Or at least that's my impression. But what did contemporaries say about it? I went to the library. A lot has been written about both Marilyn Monroe and Director Fritz Lang. The film "Clash by Night" is mentioned in quite a few books, articles and reviews, but not much is said about the Monroe/Andes subplot. What little I could find seemed to express approval of that relationship. A 1969 biographer of Marilyn Monroe described the Keith Andes character as "a stern young man of high ideals." And in the view of film critic Lotte Eisner, Andes and Monroe "provide a tender comedy."

Those are fairly old reviews; maybe the film critics, being people of their time, were oblivious to sexism. Attitudes changed radically during the feminist revolution of the 1960s. Nevertheless, Andes' disposition does seem rather extreme, even by the standards of the early '50s, when this movie was made, and I must wonder what could've motivated Director Fritz Lang to present that character as he did.

There was also Alfred Hayes, who wrote the script. I don't know what discussions may have gone on between Lang and Hayes, but clearly, both were artists capable of putting negative traits to work in a positive way, bringing characters to life on the screen, and using the story to tell us something about the world we live in.

Relationships, not romance, is the theme of "Clash by Night." Patriarchy is the kind of relationship this movie's about, and it could be seen as intentionally promoting such values. Conversely, the exact opposite interpretation is also possible. Could it be that Lang and Hayes subtly intended the Monroe/Andes subplot as social criticism? In considering this possibility, let's remember that filmmakers had only limited freedom in what they could say or show on the screen. The First Amendment did not apply to filmmaking.

Hollywood film studios were then governed by "The Code," which required that the movie industry be "directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking." The Code's notion of "correct thinking" included a bizarre list of dos and don'ts which today we can regard as ridiculous or even disgusting: Prohibitions concerning sex went to weird extremes; even married couples had to be shown sleeping separately, in twin beds. References to homosexuality were banned. Traditional religion could not be questioned. The laws of the land, including Jim Crow laws, were beyond censure.

Interracial romance or marriage was also a big no-no. When MGM made Pearl Buck's novel "The Good Earth" into a movie, the studio considered Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong for the role of wife and mother. The story was about a marriage between two Asians, so an Asian actress would seem a logical choice; however, the husband's role was played by a Caucasian actor. Even that, in the eyes of the Code, would've constituted an interracial romance, so to avoid such objections, actress Wong was rejected in favor of a Caucasian.

For two decades, from 1934 till 1954, the Code was rigidly enforced by Joseph Breen, a right-wing Christian moralist who inserted himself in the movie-making process at every step along the way, from start to finish. When a studio considered a novel for a movie production, it first had to get Breen's okay. Then Breen would edit the script, censoring this or that. Finally, he'd screen the finished movie, imposing additional censorship, often butchering films, sometimes even rearranging scenes. (Ever wonder why some of those old movies contain non sequiturs, as if something were missing?) The details of Breen's interventions were kept secret from the public till 1986 when files of censorship comments on about five thousand movies were finally released. (For a two hundred-page sampling of Breen's comments, see "The Censorship Papers" by Gerald Gardner.)

Joseph Breen's primary obsession had to do with suppressing sexual content. He was also a notorious anti-Semite. "[T]hese damn Jews are a dirty, filthy lot," he wrote to a colleague in 1932. "To attempt to talk ethical values to them is time worse than wasted." On the other hand, he was more tolerant of the Nazis, and during the rise of Hitler, managed to prevent the production of "It Can't Happen Here," "The Mad Dog of Europe," and several other anti-Nazi films. A variety of right-wing pressure groups as well as the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover loved and approved of what Mr. Breen was doing. Despite such blatantly pro-fascist censoring, his tenure in office survived World War II. The end of the war found him still running the show as Hollywood's censor-in-chief. The Cold War was beginning; that era became the heyday of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), with the jailing of the "Hollywood Ten," and the blacklisting of actors, screenwriters and directors -- a very repressive and scary time, especially for movie people.

HUAC, J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph Breen intended that Hollywood movies should serve as propaganda instruments for their agenda, and it might seem ironic that a society which touted its freedoms and democracy for all the world to see, admire and emulate would allow such totalitarians to tyrannize our film industry. Actually, that was not an ironic anomaly; a lot more was happening behind the scenes. There was "Operation Paperclip," bringing hundreds of ex-Nazi scientists, engineers and intelligence experts to the U.S. In 1947 the CIA was founded; it overthrew governments in Iran and Guatemala, created Operation Mockingbird to manipulate the media, and even promoted Modern Art. All that and a whole lot more went on behind the scenes in our democracy, and speaking of democracy, or lack thereof, for black people there was Jim Crow and segregation. Perhaps more than at any other time in our history, in the late 1940s and early 1950s we were effectively intimidated by our government. It's often called "the McCarthy Era," though as bad as Senator Joe McCarthy was, his role was relatively minor.

And that's when "Clash by Night" was made. The movie was based on an play by Clifford Odets, a former Communist. It was adapted for the cinema by screenwriter Alfred Hayes, also a former supporter of the Communist Party and the poet who wrote the lyrics of "I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night." Director Fritz Lang was an Austrian whose work had already achieved fame in the German cinema. Though apparently not especially political, Lang detested Hitler and refused to work under Joseph Goebbels. So he came to America, a refugee, where he found himself under the dominion of another Joseph -- Joseph Breen, who had to be somehow accommodated.

It would seem that there was not much that Lang and Hayes or anyone else could do about this censorship. Nevertheless, even under that supposedly airtight system, Hollywood filmmakers often found ways to push the envelope and outwit the censors. In the classic noir film "Maltese Falcon," Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart) snarls, "Keep that gunsel out of my way!" Mr. Breen apparently assumed "gunsel" meant "gunman" and let it pass. The word is used three times in the script, referring to a young guy who's the homosexual companion of an older man.

Some movie makers found subtle ways of getting around the censors. They might make the bad guys sympathetic and lovable while presenting authority figures as distasteful and repulsive and stupid. Meanwhile, the messages of some movies were quite overt. "High Noon" is the story of a man (and his wife) who are left to face the bad guys alone; it was written by Carl Foreman as an allegory about members of the Hollywood film community who abandoned their colleagues and failed to stand up to HUAC. Foreman was summoned by HUAC, even as he was making the movie, and his partner in this production abandoned him. Several of the actors were also "gray" listed. Like many blacklisted movie makers, Foreman left the country and moved to England.

Carl Foreman was not the only one to speak out. Playwright Arthur Miller took up the theme of the Salem Witch trials and wrote "The Crucible" as an allegory of the HUAC hearings, implying that the honorable congressmen of that committee were a bunch of witch hunters. Though it wasn't made into a movie till decades later, it was produced on Broadway in 1953. The play was popular, but not with HUAC; Miller was blacklisted and denied a passport.

Among my favorite movies of that era is "The Underworld Story" in which a cynical reporter winds up doing the right things for his own opportunistic reasons, fighting the privileges of corrupt mainstream newspapers. The movie is a biting exposé of upper-class privilege, racism and the media. I really wonder how this movie got past Joseph Breen. Well, somehow it did, but HUAC didn't overlook it. Director Cy Endfield, actor Howard Da Silva and screenwriter Henry Blankfort, were blacklisted.

While these and some other movie makers inserted subversive messages into their movies, sometimes subtly, occasionally openly, many more went along with the HUAC program, ratted on colleagues, named names of co-workers and friends, and made propaganda movies for the national security state. So much of Hollywood became part of that huge propaganda machine, along with radio, newspapers and even our schools, extolling the liberties which made this country so unique, constantly telling us how fortunate we were to live in this country we could speak freely without fear of retribution from the authorities.

So, in this situation, what did director Fritz Lang and screenwriter Alfred Hayes do? I'm suggesting that in creating "Clash by Night," they conspired to present a strong social criticism of patriarchy. And they got away with it. Of course it wouldn't have been wise for them to reveal such a ploy; it could've gotten them in serious trouble. Even as it was, they were both viewed with suspicion by the FBI and HUAC.

Here's what I think happened: Hayes and Lang knew the tastes of Joseph Breen, that he would find the Monroe/Andes subplot much to his liking, considering it a wonderful example of a relationship that would serve as the proper role model for young people. So what better way to ridicule Breen, that Nazi-loving fascist, than to present his beloved patriarchal values in the form of an abusive relationship? Satire disguised as a morality play.

In scene after scene where Monroe and Andes are together, we see Andes acting out his will to dominate her. Capping it off towards the end of the movie, there's a scene which plays like a parody of a HUAC hearing -- one of those hearings where many intimidated filmmakers cowered before their inquisitors, trying desperately to present themselves as obedient citizens.

"Listen to me, Blondie!" Andes bursts out. He rages on, berating her. This is not a gentle, kind and considerate lover asking for a commitment. He's a patriarchal, authoritarian figure demanding an oath of loyalty. "Now which way is it gonna be?" he barks. Monroe looks at him aghast, then sobbing, throws herself into his arms. We see the expression on her face -- sad, terrified, humiliated, perhaps feeling she has no place else to go in a world where every guy who seems worth having buys into those same abusive ideals.

The tragedy in "Clash by Night" is that we see the Monroe character, a feisty woman who is more than able to defend herself, end up dominated, beaten down, and resigned to her diminished role. It's an incisive look at a culture where people wind up in dead-end relationships where they're lonely, unhappy and abused. It's also an allegory of our society's mistreatment and subjection of film artists.

I was only nine when this movie was made, and I don't recall seeing it back then. But I do remember the HUAC hearings, the loyalty oath requirements, and the experience of growing up in an atmosphere where you simply did NOT criticize the government. Fear alone was not what really kept people in line. The victory in World War II, the post-war prosperity, the end of the Great Depression and the automobile, plus the A-bomb, all contributed to an incredible mystique amounting to a moral force that held people in thrall, so much so that the adults around me perceived the powers that be as our benevolent protector, as the ultimate patriarch. People wanted to be in good with them, the way Monroe wanted to be in good with her abusive boyfriend.

updated February 12, 2018
danielfortyone ( )

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Clash by Night (1952)

Director: Fritz Lang
Producers: Jerry Wald, Norman Krasna, Harriet Parsons
Screenplay: Alfred Hayes
Based on the play "Clash by Night" by Clifford Odets


Barbara Stanwyck as Mae Doyle D'Amato
Paul Douglas as Jerry D'Amato
Robert Ryan as Earl Pfeiffer
Marilyn Monroe as Peggy
J. Carrol Naish as Uncle Vince
Silvio Minciotti as Papa D'Amato
Keith Andes as Joe Doyle

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